In the wake of the rash of corporate misdeeds for which Enron is the metaphor, it is not surprising that there has been a proliferation of op/eds, seminars, and beefed-up business school courses on business ethics. The best article I have seen so far is “Oxymoron 101”, by Dan Seligman in Forbes magazine (it also carries the most appropriate title!). Seligman is understandably dubious of the business schools’ ability to offer anything meaningful about ethical lapses in business. At the risk of appearing sanctimonious, I’ve never had nor felt the need for a course on business ethics, nor in my days as a CEO would I have considered requiring one for my colleagues. It’s about character and the recognition of right and wrong behavior. If you need to take a course to recognize a conflict of interest, you shouldn’t be running a business or any other institution. I’m not terminally naïve; I know that there are ethical and moral “dilemmas”, but there is no magic about any of this.
Recent surveys reveal that lying to supervisors is rampant and that top management credibility with subordinates is seriously damaged throughout the business community. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of this condition results from decades of instruction in and examples of situational ethics, moral relativity, and non-judgmentalism. And we are reaping what we have sowed with the current “no confidence” attitude toward corporate governance on the part of the investing and the general public. More ethics courses and more laws and regulations will never be the answer. What we need is more of what is implied by the title of a famous early-1990’s report on the subject—“obedience to the unenforceable”—the key to ethics in business and in life.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to the fall teacher education conference of the Consortium of State Organizations for Texas Teacher Education (CSOTTE). It was quite an experience primarily because, probably needless to say, much of my evaluation of colleges of education is at extreme variance with the audience of approximately 400 deans, associate deans, and education curriculum directors.
What strikes me most as a disconnect with the teacher education establishment (and I must be careful here not to overly generalize) is that it seems to recognize no real connection between teacher preparation and student performance, nor any responsibility for the under-performance of public education. The collective attitude, usually implied but often expressed, is “we do the best we can with the raw material we’re given to work with”. The truth is closer to this: Traditional educator preparation leadership is totally immersed in the shibboleths of “discovery” or “learner-centered” philosophy in learning, “academic freedom” in pedagogy, resistance to “teaching to the test”, and opposition to competitive value-added evaluation of performance and accreditation of programs.
I have been repeatedly reminded that a public school is not a business and cannot be managed as such. I accept that there are major differences, but I am equally sure that public education and the institutions and programs that supply its management are not immune to the incentives that drive human nature and performance in business and other walks of life. I am further convinced that the next phase of education reform must include radical reform of teacher preparation and teaching methods inside the classroom. This will require a re-evaluation of many of the most cherished “sacred cows” of the education establishment. It is long overdue.
Some observations on the current status of our response to the Iraqi threat and other aspects of the War on Terrorism:
- I hope President Bush hasn’t allowed France to compromise our sovereignty in negotiating a UN Security Council resolution on Iraq. Can someone please tell me how France, not to mention the UN itself, has any moral authority to be instructive to the U. S. on its defense and foreign policy?
- Paul Craig Roberts has offered the best note of caution on Iraq that I have read. Basically, he is asking the right questions, most of which have to do with U. S. resolve for a protracted conflict, i. e., “do we have the economic and cultural strength for such an undertaking?” This is the one thing I worry most about—our political and moral will to wage total war. Put another way, how will we handle a 21st century Battle of Shiloh?
- Surprisingly, a Duke University professor, Joseph M. Grieco, has written in support of military action against Iraq, and for the reason that, as now with North Korea, it will be too late if we wait until Saddam Hussein acquires a nuclear weapons capability. In an interesting analogy, he believes the recent nuclear arms disclosure has placed us in a Cold War-type “mutually assured destruction” standoff with North Korea, as it would with Iraq, allowing Saddam hegemony in the Middle East, which would be totally unacceptable. Hmmm. Right conclusion, partly correct reason. The liberation of Iraq is the right thing to do for the enhancement of freedom in the world.
- My friend Barry Klein has responded with e-mails and several articles critical of the Bush Doctrine, much of it from the libertarian or paleoconservative perspective, outlining certain U. S. foreign policy double standards, accusing Bush of imperialism, etc. As I have attempted to make clear in previous issues, we can no longer take comfort in defining American interests in terms of the old Cold War paradigm, and many of the “deals” and arrangements that have been sustained over the past fifty years must be re-examined and scrapped. We have postponed this reality since 1991, but on 9-11-01, it hit us in the gut. Double standards that have produced tyrants such as Saddam Hussein and the duplicity of the Saudi royal family, among others, can no longer be tolerated, even if a case can be made that the U. S. has been somewhat complicit in their continued existence. I’m afraid we’re in for a long, difficult war, some of which will be fought to correct some mistakes on our part. Better now than later.
As we close our third year, here are some thoughts on various events and issues that are floating about the public square:
- A TV debate between two journalism professors on the role of the media in the recent D. C. area sniper case produced this: “We have reached a consensus in this democracy that more information is preferable to less information”. Oh, really? Thereby substantiating the public’s right to know, regardless of the context and consequences? This is typical of the mindset that drives much of our loss of civility and civic responsibility—rights trump duty and restraint, “if we know, we tell”, “if we can do it, we should”, all of which moves us toward the lowest common denominator and away from the restraint necessary to sustain ordered liberty.
- Several weeks ago, I caught an interview by Bill O’Reilly of two Boston University professors who had just completed an extensive survey of 15- to 17- year old teenagers around the world about their impressions of the U. S. On balance, they were negative. Why? Decadence, immorality, violence, and greed were most cited. And where do they get most of their information on America? Hollywood, of course.
- I admire intellectual integrity from across the ideological and political spectrum, as well as those who are true to their convictions. Paul Wellstone was evidently from this mold, which is why I think he would have been embarrassed for his family and appalled at the demeaning use of his legacy by the Democratic National Committee in the shameful display of political opportunism at his “memorial” service. As Bill Clinton has said, “You gotta do what you gotta do”, apparently even if it means the continued moral hollowing of a once-great political party.
- Incidentally, when are we going to return to sanity in the conduct of our elections and enforce the rule of law, require voter identification, and introduce some minimal level of qualification to vote? If present trends hold, we’re headed for serious damage to the credibility of American democracy.
- A recent article in The Weekly Standard by Joseph Loconte calls attention to the weakness of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which is under attack in various states by gay/lesbian groups. It seems to me that it’s time to draw a line in the sand and hold the barricade. If as a society we cannot define the nature of humanity in a relationship the basis of which is critical to the future of our children, how can we hope to sustain a republican form of government?
- It is often remarked that the Nobel Peace Prize is a continuing guilt trip for Alfred Nobel for his invention of dynamite. If so, he would feel totally vindicated with the selection of Jimmy Carter. No one is due more admiration for his personal character traits, his benevolent spirit, and good humanitarian works. But a case can be made that he did less to actually achieve peace than any U. S. President or ex-President in modern history. I realize that the Nobel is, by definition, a prize for pacifists, but Ronald Reagan did more for world peace than Carter could dream, and I predict that the Bush Doctrine, properly executed, may top even that.